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The triumph of process

Published: March 12, 2010
Section: Opinions


In the horrible summer of 2004, one hardly dared to hope of Iraq settling into a democratic rhythm.  Barely a night went by without the report of yet another American death via suicide bomber or improvised explosive device.  That spring four American contractors had been dragged from their cars in Fallujah, beaten, immolated, and strung up over the Euphrates River, and the American Army, in retaliation, embarked on the long, costly struggle for control of that city which would result in more than 1,000 casualties.

In the election that took place the following year, a remarkable 76 percent of Iraqis voted.  Defying bombs and gunmen to dip their forefingers in a well of blue ink, the Iraqi people created the closest thing to a genuine popular government their country had seen in decades.  Yet there were flaws—gaping holes, really.  Ballots from north to south were cast under the veil of an American gun.  Many of the principle candidates came from violent religious factions.  And worst of all, Iraqi Sunnis, 20 percent of the population, boycotted the vote en-masse.

The intervening years have hardly been smooth by anyone’s definition.  After a period away from the front page, Iraq slid back into the headlines in 2006.  American troops and the Coalition of the Willing battled the euphoniously titled Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and their fellow “foreign fighters.”  At the end of that year, and following years of failed policy, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was finally shown the door, if not the light.  As Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates successfully pushed for the surge, thanks to which the Iraqis now have their streets back.

Yet while the streets may be safer, the politics remain rough.  Several months ago the current Prime Minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, in an effort to shore up his Shiite base, had the electoral commission disqualify more than 500 parliamentary candidates—mainly Sunnis—on the grounds that they had ties to the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.  This open attempt to manipulate the election was thwarted only when an appeals court overturned the commission’s decision, and likely opened the way for further legal challenges in the near future.

Still, the fact that voting took place this past Sunday, with “only” 40 fatalities, in spite of a series of bombings, offers a stirring hope.  Joined this time by large numbers of Sunnis, Iraqis again voted in higher percentages than Americans, even in the 2008 election.  The candidates that campaigned in Iraq this time around did so, for better or worse, much as American politicians do—as individuals with party backing, rather than vice-versa.

Let me make one thing clear: I do not and never have believed in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  That the years of struggle in Iraq have cost more lives (upwards of 100,000 in most estimates, and at least five times that number of displaced persons) than Saddam Hussein would have taken in this period I think likely.  That we entered the war under false pretenses—that we were lied to—I have no doubt.

But that something good—a democratic Muslim country in the Middle East—can come of this mess, I find both remarkable and heartening.  Regardless of the result, a free and fair election in Iraq can only be a good thing, for the Iraqis, for the region, and for us.